Blue Hill: Casual Elegance for Digestive Reactionaries

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Blue Notes

Blue Hill
75 Washington Pl.
(betw. 6th Ave. & MacDougal St.),

What that means is that Blue Hill, as culinary enterprise, merges nicely with my personality. And that's one of the very few things I seek when it comes to relatively fine dining: a colloquy with my self-esteem, a few hours of gustatory and environmental affirmation. By and large, I am not thrilled by "finds" of "scenes" or the whole obscene hootenanny of trawling for the elusive chic under the pretense of filling one's belly. I like to fill my belly amid surroundings that are soothing, easygoing, relaxed, chummy, casual, commendable. And I like to fill my belly with food that tastes good and that doesn't require excessive explanation or a high level of multicultural curiosity. I am not a culinary colonialist?I am a digestive reactionary.

That doesn't mean I like boredom. Thrills?simple ones?are fine, within limits. One of the problems with New York restaurants these days is that they have, in many cases, surrendered to a funhouse mentality, or an ethos of fanciful evocation or...stunts. Le Cirque 2000 and the Russian Tea Room are the two most obvious examples, but the trend if rife. There's too much faux setting up shop all over town. Too much fakery. Blue Hill sits squarely in the middle of the continuum of productive resistance to this trend. At one end, the most satisfying, reside Gramercy Tavern and Gotham Bar & Grill. Stalwarts. Great New York Restaurants. Moving on along, Savoy. Home. Union Square Cafe. Indigo. The Independent. All restaurants that, to varying degrees, make patrons feel comfortable and happy and place the emphasis on food. Patriotic places. Havens for the preservation of the good and the just in roasting and sauteeing and grilling and whatnot.

To that list, I now add Blue Hill, which is to my stomach what clear breezy days are to my soul: a reason to live. Not that Blue Hill, which has been open for a few months, doesn't have some kinks to iron out. In fact, what few kinks there are seem all the more glaring because the overall mood of the restaurant is so compelling.

Located a few steps below the street, Blue Hill beckons in the same way that the Grange Hall does, but in snugger confines and with a cleaner, more David Rockwellized design. It feels reliable and serious and above all else adult, but the impression is never ponderous, never didactic. And really, who wants a restaurant to supply moral improvements? Well, maybe I do, but I'll settle for subdued lighting that drifts mellowly and mysteriously from narrow slots in the ceiling. The thick gray stone slabs of bartop, which greet diners on arrival. The dark, polished wood floors. The narrow banquets that efficiently line the blank walls. The round tables. I could do without the paper sheets that shield the white tablecloths, but given that Blue Hill will probably not strike its rich vein of profitability for a while yet, I can understand why the management might want to spare the linen.

Otherwise, the decor is swank, without making too big a deal out of it. Sneaky swank. And utterly, blissfully devoid of a theme. Presumably, you could wear whatever you want to eat at Blue Hill, but the quiet elegance of the space discourages the idiotic excesses lately spotted on the youthful denizens of sleek Manhattan: cargo this, techno that. Shiny garb, underclad women with slatternly eyes, men with enormous wristwatches and weird hair. I wore a blazer and tie when I visited. So did a lot of other guys on the premises. My companions, all women, wore sweet dresses and tasteful jewelry. I didn't spot any dumb cocktails. There was no music, and conversation was pleasantly hushed. There was a joyful, relieved dignity to be found in it all. A sense of purposefulness and professionalism and welcome signs that the world has not completely lost its manners and been given whole hog to teenagers.

The food was pretty good, too. (Not to mention the service?Blue Hill jumped through hoops to seat our sixsome on short notice, and they were endlessly pleasant about the request.) Here's how it went: Blue Hill has some work left to do on the starters, has achieved veritable perfection with the entrees and needs to reconsider the desserts. The wine list is impeccable, though certainly not stuffy. Again, my kind of place, and also my kind of wine list: not one of these sprawling, telephone-book affairs, but a neatly curated lineup of selections that represent the three pillars of contemporary New York restaurant sommeliering: classic, homegrown and new. In other words, they've got Bordeaux, they've got California and they've got stuff you might never have heard of, but will perhaps not forget after a taste or two. (Plus, they have a nice big EuroCave wine storage system in a short vestibule between the kitchen and the dining room, making it thoroughly pleasant to sit in the back?the view is reassuring, and there's a buffer between diners and the steady stream of arriving orders.)

For the booze, we accepted, based on our choices, the recommendation of our waiter, a genial dude who has officially entered the running for "Best Village Waiter" in our upcoming "Best of Manhattan" issue. The special?and the second priciest entree for the evening, at $25?was tuna belly, or "toro," a lush cut of tuna that, as I've heard it, typically gets harvested on the docks as the tuna boats come in, then is swiftly purchased by Japanese brokers for immediate shipment back to Japan, where it becomes one of the more highly coveted forms of sashimi. I had sea bass ($21). Several others went for the hanger steak ($23), but they didn't drink wine, so what we needed, in the end, was an apt companion for the flaky smokiness of my sea bass that would also work with the richer tuna. Chardonnay was out, as I thought one would be awful with my fish. A sharper, more citrusy white, like sauvignon blanc, wouldn't fly, either?wrong for the tuna. I had in mind something with a little semillon in it. But then our waiter suggested an Alsatian pinot blanc, and bells went off. Dry, but with some textural oomph, and as is often the case with Alsatian or German white, full-fruited enough to stand on its own against rich dishes. Anyway, it was excellent. A splendid match, and only $36, a relative bargain for the quality.

Before tuna and sea bass and steak, however, we adventured into the appetizers, and were a little disappointed. I chose foie gras, which was prepared like baklava: goose liver sandwiched between layers of flaky crust. Interesting in concept, flawed in execution, and not cheap ($14). I mean, foie gras is foie gras. There's no point in dressing it up. Saute it, plate it, sauce it. End of story. Bay scallops ($11) were better?hefty and buttery?but still no great shakes, and hampered by too many greens and not enough sauce. And before I forget, the table was gifted with an amuse-bouche, shot glasses of pea soup, of a beautiful color (rich celadon), and elegantly pureed, but too heavy on the garlic.

Entrees, on the other hand, were stupendous. The tuna belly was dense and flavorful and threatened just enough with fire to acquire a robust, Americanized flavor. Sea bass was served over a delicious mussel chowder, reminding me that the whole technique of presenting delicate fish in bowls over some kind of savory stewed something?first encountered at Zoe several years back?continues to work quite well and, furthermore, offers plenty of room for continued experimentation.

Desserts? Solid, but (we later decided) wrong for the season. Chocolate bread pudding and rice pudding (with passion fruit "foam," really more of a passion fruit puddle) in August? We should have stuck with ice cream. And Blue Hill's dessert chef should work up something with more fruit in it. There's no faulting the restaurant for dessert wines, however. We tried three: a Coteaux de Lyon, a Banyuls and a late-harvest Australian riesling. All were fine conclusions to one of the year's more heartening meals.

I can't wait to get back to Blue Hill in autumn, when there's more meat on the menu, and the first dry-cool intimations of the changing season allow me to wear tweed. I think tweed's going to look pretty sharp in there, against the russet woods, in the pools of honeyed light. A space in which to luxuriate, and to breathe. And, to be sure, eat.

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